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4 Times The United States Was More Divided Than It Is Right Now

Historical Facts | November 25, 2020

(Boston Athenæum/Wikimedia Commons)

If it seems like the United States has always been divided, that's likely no accident. The purposeful separation of Church and State. The freedom of the press. The inalienable right to protest peacefully. If a government wanted unfettered stability, it likely would have been built without allowing these features. World history may very well come to recognize 2020 as a seminal chapter in history, where the United States was mired in a schism without precedent, but it's likely just a sign that the United States is functioning as it's largely supposed to. For proof, here are four of the most divisive moments in U.S. history.

The Caning Of Charles Sumner

Five years prior to the secession of the Southern states and subsequently the U.S. Civil War, then-Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was nearly caned to death by South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks. Why? Sumner gave a passionate, anti-slavery speech vilifying South Carolina and its senator, Andrew Butler: "He cannot surely have forgotten [South Carolina's] shameful imbecility from slavery, confessed throughout the Revolution, followed by its more shameful assumptions for slavery since," Sumner said of Butler. "He cannot have forgotten its wretched persistence in the slave trade as the very apple of its eye and the condition of its participation in the Union."

Brooks took umbrage to the remarks. Waiting until Sumner was alone on the Senate floor, he caned him almost him to death. Sumner was left nearly blind due to the beating, leaving Representative Ansom Burlingame, also of Massachusetts, to come to his aid. Burlingame challenged Brooks to a duel—the shooting kind—and Brooks backed down when he heard Burlingame was a good shot. (Burlingame went on to become one of the most prominent diplomats to broker relations between the U.S. and China.) Brooks was convicted of assault and fined $300 but elected to another term months after the caning. The beating—and the public's ambivalent reaction to it—was more than enough proof that a civil war was imminent.

(White House/Wikimedia Commons)

The 1800 President Election

Every four years, Americans are told the coming election will be the most important election in the history of the country. Arguable as that always is, that distinction will likely almost always go to the presidential election of 1800, when Democratic-Republican Thomas Jefferson faced off against the incumbent, Federalist John Adams. Following President Washington's final term in office, Jefferson had narrowly lost the election to Adams, but four years later, it was Jefferson who had come out ahead—barely—of President Adams. With the election of 1800, though, the issue wasn't Adams. It was Aaron Burr.

In 1800, the U.S. presidency was chosen through a body of electors. Each of these electors was given two votes, whichever candidate received the most votes became president, and the "runner-up" became vice president. Jefferson—a controversial figure at the time for his alleged atheist beliefs and anti-federalist stance—tied Burr with 73 votes, while John Adams received 65. The choice over who would become president was turned over to the House of Representatives, where both Burr and Jefferson found ways to game the election for themselves.

Meanwhile, state militias from Maryland gathered in the newly minted U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., which was primarily farmland at the time. They were fully prepared to overthrow the government if their choice of president wasn't elected. "Talk was rife about militias arming, a possible civil war, and the breakup of the union. There were even reports that Jefferson would be assassinated," wrote historian James Roger Sharp. "Adding to the anxiety about violence were lingering fears from the Virginia slave conspiracy in the summer of 1800 and the outbreak of two mysterious fires in Washington. The building that housed the War Department burned November 8, while portions of the Treasury Department were damaged by flames on January 20."

After balloting over 35 times and coming up with the same, deadlocked result of 73–73 each go-around, a compromise was made to prevent the country from tearing itself apart. James Bayard, the sole elector whose vote represented the entire state of Delaware, cast a blank ballot, taking a state away from Burr and thus offering Jefferson the majority nine states needed to win the U.S. presidency. While the election of 1800 certainly had its bumps in the road, it ended up being something of a success. For the first time in its new history, the U.S. oversaw a peaceful transition of power between separate political parties.  

(Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Anti-Interventionists Vs. The Internationalists In 1941

Americans remember the Second World War as the moment when the United States became the leader atop the world stage, but the years prior represent some of the nation's most tumultuous. In 1939, 74% of Americans approved of selling food to England, France, and Poland in their fight against the Nazi uprising, but in that same Gallup poll, 84% said they were against sending the U.S. Army. All told, 90% were against declaring war with Nazi Germany. The Neutrality Act of 1935 supported these positions, prohibiting the United States from exporting arms to any nation at war. In essence, this act gave the U.S. a neutrality stance reminiscent of modern-day Switzerland.

The U.S. military was not exactly a juggernaut prior to World War II, estimated to be the 17th-largest military in the world, but anti-intervention sentiment likely ran deeper than a fear of being over-matched. The U.S. nearly avoided intervention in World War I but lost over 100,000 soldiers, and the country was also recovering from an influenza pandemic and the Great Depression. The America First Committee promoted keeping America isolated from the war and boasted as many as 800,000 members, Charles Lindbergh being one of its most prominent and likely controversial voices, but the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies was founded around the same time and likely had as many members.

The war put F.D.R. in a quagmire of historical proportions. Years before having to choose between fighting the Nazis or watching his European allies vanish, Roosevelt's presidency was already under much scrutiny, and anti-war sentiment forced him to take a pro-neutrality stance when he ran for his third presidential term in 1940. "We will not participate in foreign wars, and we will not send our army, naval, or air forces to fight in foreign lands outside of the Americas except in case of attack," read the Democratic platform adopted in Chicago that year.

In the end, both the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Germany's formal declaration of war against the U.S. forced the federal hand, but even during the war, the U.S. felt a need to justify its intervention through propaganda. Companies as big as Disney and creators as successful as Frank Capra joined forces to explain why America was fighting in the aptly named movie series Why We Fight.

(The George Dee Magic Washing Machine Company/Wikimedia Commons)

The Anti-Immigration Movement From 1890 To 1920

In the beginning, the historical immigration model that most influenced the U.S. was that of the Romans, who had a relatively open policy of offering citizenship to patrons of nations it had recently conquered. That said, establishing a consistent immigration policy has eluded the United States and provided some of the most divisive moments in U.S. history.

In 1790, George Washington signed the Naturalization Act, which granted citizenship to "free white men" after two years of residence as long as their fathers were also residents in some capacity for a period of time. By 1795, anti-immigration sentiment began to grow, so the minimum residence period was increased from two years to five to keep those grumpy folks happy. In 1798, it was extended yet again to 14 years, and this time, historians believe the extension was intended to prevent a new influx of voters who were opposed to the Federalist Party. (Most immigrants favored Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party.)

A century later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese immigrants who had built the U.S. railroads from pursuing citizenship. It was fueled by strong anti-immigration sentiment that culminated in the creation of the American Protective Association, which focused on assaulting the "alien ways of the new immigrants" and collected over 500,000 members by 1895.

The most divisive moment in U.S. immigration history, however, was likely during the 1920s, when the Emergency Quotas Act and the Immigration Act were passed in 1921 and 1924, respectively. The acts severely limited who could enter the United States and effectively shut the door on most prospective immigrants, thousands of whom were stranded at foreign ports, visas in hand, after they were denied entry into the U.S. Perhaps most strikingly, the acts heavily restricted Japanese immigration, which caused a rift many link to the eventual Pearl Harbor bombing.

Tags: immigration | political campaigns | slavery | United States | war

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Brian Gilmore

Writer

Brian Gilmore has been writing about and studying everything the Internet loves since 2006 and you've probably accidentally read something he's written before, and if you haven't, you're already reading this bio, so that's a good start. He's a culture junkie ranging from Internet culture, to world history, to listening to way more podcasts than the average human being ever should. He's obsessed with the social catalysts that have caused some of the biggest movements of the last few hundred years, including everything from their effect on the pop culture of the time, to where they end up ideologically. The idea that generations have a beginning and an end is fascinating to him, and the fact that their lasting effects at any given point of their evolution can steer the direction of the entire world lead to some interesting questions, and answers, about our current culture at any given time. He also loves retrofuturism, phobias, and the fact that every pop culture icon has at least a few photos of them that make you feel like you might know them. History isn't a collection of stories as much as it is humanity trying its hardest to maintain a grasp on lessons we've learned before as a species, and that is just way too interesting to not look into a few hours a week. Oh and he used to collect Pez dispensers.